The Power of Partnership

Nikki and Jen

Why co-leadership with social entrepreneurs, young changemakers, and organisations big and small lies at the heart of Ashoka’s mission to build an Everyone a Changemaker – or EACH – world.

As Ashoka UK & Ireland launches its search for the office’s next Co-Director, current Co-Director Nikki Gravning reflects on her time with the organisation and highlights why partnerships with co-leaders are central to realising Ashoka’s EACH mission.  

Why did you join Ashoka?  

I joined Ashoka more than two years ago. I had started my career in the private sector, but the work I was doing didn’t align to my values. I experienced a bit of an identity crisis. I’m not an activist or a politician. I couldn’t quite figure out where I fit in. But I knew that business could be a force for good and wanted to focus on getting the private sector to do more to improve social outcomes. How could I influence others so that they see differently to do differently? 

I was living in Australia and joined an agency that was a registered B Corps. I worked with the agency’s founders – two women who had started the country’s first human-centred design agency that works with organisations to put social and environmental justice at their core. They created experiences to shift hearts and minds.  

I knew then that I had found my fit. 

It was when I was helping New Zealand’s national innovation agency develop its social innovation strategy that I first came across Ashoka. I was doing research and read a quote from Bill Drayton [Ashoka’s founder] that struck a chord: ‘Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.’ I learned about Ashoka’s experience with field-building globally. So when I was planning my move to Europe and found out about Ashoka’s presence across the continent, I knew I wanted to work here. And I was especially interested in how Ashoka works with companies – about marrying corporate innovation with social innovation, because it’s only through strong partnership building that we can build a different world.  

Central to Ashoka’s mission is building an ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ world. Why?  

Ashoka’s vision is big and inspiring. It can seem lofty. But when you break it down, it’s about supporting anyone – a CEO of a company, an Executive Director of a foundation, a teacher, a parent – to act on their potential to do good for others. We believe in everyone’s ability to solve collective problems for everyone’s benefit. We go out of our way to collaborate and embrace change and look at the world in new ways. 

Ashoka’s EACH vision didn’t come out of the blue. It came from spotting patterns from the work of close to 4,000 Ashoka Fellows. All of these social entrepreneurs possess the red thread of empowering others to embrace and make change. And the work is grounded in empathy. There’s a strong message that grows out of this around how best to measure success. So when we start talking about empowering young changemakers, for example, it’s getting people in institutions to understand the importance of youth agency, empowerment, and collaboration. There are mindsets and dispositions and skills that young people need in order to be successful in a world of constant change. There’s a new language we need to speak, and it’s about learning how to adapt and thrive amidst change. 

And what does EACH look like in practice, in Ashoka’s day-to-day work?  

For our Fellowship Programme, EACH was the inspiration for bringing our community together three years ago to discuss our shared purpose. We decided that it is to mobilise the collective power of the community and meet each other not as highly successful social entrepreneurs and allies and funders but instead as Changemakers. We recognise the changemaking potential of ALL and wanted that to build understanding and relationships. This has changed the dynamic of how we work. It’s empowering. Our work is much more co-creative, much more about peer-to-peer learning. And, it’s about connecting on a human level. The work has gone from transactional to being more community-led. We convene as peers to learn from and grow with each other. 

EACH is the single organising principle guiding changes to our Venture Programme. If everyone is a changemaker, then everyone can play a part in finding systems-changing social entrepreneurs. Historically, we’ve tended to look to the same communities for Fellow candidates where organisations like ours also tend to look. Many of our Fellows have come from London because our nominators have come from London. But this year, we’ve been working to build up nominations elsewhere in the country, like Greater Manchester. We need to get out of our comfort zone and find social entrepreneurs in communities and networks where we haven’t looked before. Because they’re there, they’re doing impactful work, and we need them to join us. That approach is motivated by our EACH vision. We need to involve everyone around the country.   

And for our Partnerships Programme, the EACH vision means we don’t approach this work transactionally. We actively search for and select partners who want to be co-leaders in creating an EACH world. We want partners who see us as equals and walk with us, side by side. This has created new dynamics, such as with one of our newest partners The Inkey List. The company was founded by an ex-teacher whose vision aligns with Ashoka’s EACH vision. The Inkey List wants to use its platform not just to support EACH but also to influence its sector and those who supply it. They want to join us in co-leading with young people because like Ashoka, Inkey knows about the power of young people to create something new and better. Together, we’re seeing business and impact differently to do business and impact differently. It’s only through strong partnership building that we can get to a world in which everyone sees themselves as a changemaker. 

EACH also guides our work with young people. We want a world in which parents and teachers and the media activate every young person to be a changemaker. We’re partnering with the Edge Foundation, which works for a more equitable and impactful education system across the UK, to realise this. We’re inviting young people to co-lead with us. We recently launched the Youth Change Leader Programme with the generous support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. We’ve already recruited three of these change leaders to help us develop our strategy for engaging more youth across the UK. They’re helping us with partnership development in Greater Manchester and beyond. They’re central to our EACH work. 

And what evidence do you see that Ashoka’s vision for an Everyone a Changemaker world is having an impact? 

You just need to look to our Fellows who lead on this work.  

Ruth Ibegbuna has worked on youth empowerment for more than 25 years and has created space across Greater Manchester for more youth voice. Her latest venture is ReKindle, a supplementary school developed by and for young people. We are learning more about what EACH looks like through Ruth’s work, and she’s supporting us on developing the Youth Change Leader Programme.  

And then there’s Sarah Corbett, who created the Craftivist Collective. She has helped us to build our partnership with Chanel by sharing with them how her quiet activism movement has brought about systems change. She was literally in the room with us, sparking ‘a-ha’ moments with corporate leaders.  

I’ve mentioned Fellows because realising EACH isn’t down to Ashoka itself. We’re not the EACH powerhouse. We connect and convene changemakers so that more and more people see what changemaking looks like and think, I can do that too! We work with social entrepreneurs to help them spread their changemaking and impact. We’re always asking ourselves, how do we create more opportunities for changemakers to spread their changemaking and activate others? 

A lot of this exciting work right now is going on in Greater Manchester. We’re working with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to figure out how best to build the UK’s first changemaker region. Manchester’s catchphrase is ‘We do things differently here’, and changemaking has long been part of its history. We’re having exciting conversations with universities and secondary schools and the private sector to see how we all can build the EACH vision.  

Innovation with partners like the Combined Authority moves at the speed of trust. We’re building that through powerful collaboration and the shared EACH vision.  

And to those reading this, what do you say to them? 

If you have experience with impactful changemaking and know how to convene and activate others, apply for the country Co-Director role. If you’re a young changemaker and want to co-lead with us, apply to be our next Youth Change Leader. Or, if you work with young people and know of someone who can co-lead with us, nominate them. And if you’re a company that wants to experiment with what we know to be true – that changemaking improves employability – get in touch. Let’s work together. 

To join the EACH movement, contact the Ashoka UK & Ireland office today ([email protected]).